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Great Expectations, Swedish Edition: Katatonia and The Mary Onettes

November 15, 2009

Ed. Note: TBTS’s Great Expectations column discusses the recently released work of artists we love. The column addresses the questions, “Does the work live up to expectations?” and “Is the work a worthy addition to the artist’s canon?”

What a fascinating place Sweden must be, to have spawned two exciting, globally recognized, and radically different music scenes—a vibrant 80s synth-pop and post-punk revival centered on Labrador Records, and a thriving art/prog/black metal movement with growing crossover/mainstream popularity in the U.S. and Europe. A great band from each of these camps released new albums this month.

KatatoniaNight is the New Day

For me, Katatonia’s 2006 masterpiece The Great Cold Distance (TGCD) is on the short list of albums that changed the way I heard music. It almost single-handedly sparked my continuing and still-consistent interest in a certain strain of heavy music. Funny story (to me at least): I was recovering from anaesthesia on the day I first read about and bought the record online a month or two after its spring 2006 release, so I honestly don’t remember where I first read about TGCD. The next day, it was like it had magically appeared in my music library, as I only vaguely recalled acquiring the record the previous day.

Regardless of where it came from, it was a special delivery from the rock gods. The mixture of emotional melodicism, gothic atmospherics, monstrous riffs, proggy intricacy, and yearning “clean” vocals (with a few well-placed screams) made me an instant convert, and I gradually acquired a taste for a couple of even heavier variations of what Katatonia did so well. In addition to The Great Cold Distance, albums by Opeth, Agalloch, and Isis have become some of my favorites of this decade.

Thus far, the new Katatonia album Night is the New Day (NND) is not living up to the probably unfair expectations I had for their follow-up to TGCD. I have great respect for Popmatters metal reviewer Adrien Begrand, but I have to disagree with his assessment that NND is Katatonia’s masterwork. He calls it their Disintegration, but given the extent to which Katatonia have lightened up their sound and softened the metal brutality, I’m tempted to refer to parts of NND as their “Silent Lucidity.”

That said, there are some great songs on NND, and it seems to be garnering overwhelmingly enthusiastic positive reviews. It’s also better than the other Katatonia records (Viva Emptiness and Last Fair Deal Gone Down) that I picked up after falling in love with TGCD. So I’m going to keep listening, and I’m sure I’ll end up substantially enjoying Night is the New Day on its own terms one of these days.

The Mary OnettesIslands

The Mary Onettes are my second favorite Labrador band, behind only The Radio Dept. (purveyors of some of the finest synth-pop songs of the decade). Whereas The Radio Dept. specializes in an irresistible blend of Pet Shop Boys danceability and Sarah Records fragility, The Mary Onettes fall squarely into the Church/Bunnymen camp of windswept, guitar-based, melancholy romanticism (still with a considerable synth presence in the Mary Onettes’ case).

And I love ’em both. As with Interpol’s debut album Turn on the Bright Lights, I’ll defend the best of the 2000s revival bands as being ON PAR WITH their forebearers and therefore worthy of rising above any tags of “unoriginality.” I argue that when a new band immerses themselves in a genre so thoroughly and purely that they become an unassailable master of it, even if only on one album, the newer band deserves similar levels of respect afforded to the older bands whose influence they clearly bear.

Islands is no radical departure from the Mary Onettes’ first, self-titled album that, for me, achieved the heights described above. My early impression is that Islands does not feature as many instant classics as found on the first album (“Lost,” “Void,” “Under the Guillotine,” and “Still” are especially sublime tracks from the first record). However, “God Knows I Had Other Plans,” “Symmetry,” “Century,” and a handful of other Islands tracks are worthy heirs that reinforce the Mary Onettes’ status as one of the great pop bands of the latter half of this decade.

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